Thom & Aimee

Two Hobbits. The Kitchen. The Garden. And trouble ensues.

Tag: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

The Novice Cook: Beetroot, Anchovies and Eggs

In Singapore, land is scarce. Despite being known as a Garden City (every road you go down is lined with trees), access to a plot of land to grow your own food can be difficult. Most of us live in high-rise buildings and any form of gardening is confined to the limited space the common corridor permits. Of course, urban gardening might be gaining momentum in many cities of the world, but in Singapore, it’s not unusual to grab a few chillies or tomatoes from just outside your door. Yes, we might be living away from the ground, but it doesn’t mean we can’t grow our own food.

The tiny ‘garden’ we have, our Dad’s pride of joy, is becoming a little ecosystem on its own. Okay, my Dad is weird. If ferns and unwanted plants make our garden their home, he would allow them the right to live. Yes, we have weeds and all, my Dad is surprisingly very zen with life and death. Bees, bugs and butterflies often visit to feed on nectar. A couple of hummingbirds have made a nest recently. (We have had plenty of animals visiting our home – monkeys, owls, bats, random birds, the list goes on. And we live on the third floor. Once we had frogs on the loose, but that’s a story for another day.)

We have to admit that we can’t grow any fruit trees, and definitely cannot raise livestock. How we wish to have a brood of chickens! Imagine this: fresh eggs in the morning and free-range organic chickens! (Oh, Dad used to keep chickens as pets when he was a kid. But eventually, he did eat them though.) Most of our meat are imported – an example, our pork is from Down Under, or our poultry from the neighbouring Malaysia. But we will never know how these animals were treated before they end up in clean little plastic-wrapped packages in the markets.

Just ask a person on the street, they would paint you a picture of an idyllic farm land with lush green fields where the cows happily graze. That is still quite possible but a rarity in this day and age. In fact, most of our food come from huge industrialised farms and the animals are seen as part of a business model. This means welfare of these animals is not of top priority. Money first, how these animals feel can be on the agenda if there is a complaint. So ask yourself, are you okay eating that piece of steak on your plate tonight if I told you that the cow suffered when alive?

Ever since I watched Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Chicken Out and read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, I’ve become more conscious about eating meat. I’m going to make my stand clear: I’m not turning vegetarian and it’s not about being a earth-loving plant-chewing hippie. I grew up eating meat and have always felt amiss if meat is not present during a meal. But as much as I love eating beef, lamb, pork or chicken, I cannot allow myself to consume an animal who has suffered. Yes, in a way, death is a form of suffering. But at least, if it has lived a contented life doing what it is born to do and slaughtered with respect, that would be okay by me. Many might say I am contradicting myself. However, this is where I stand.

And where does this lead me to? It means I would have to know how these animals have lived prior their visit to the abattoir. In Singapore, we do not have these sort of information. There is no way I can drive down to the farm and watch how the farmer tends to his or her animals. Well, I simply cut meat from my meals unless I know its source. Since last December, I’ve lived on a diet of vegetables, beancurd, eggs and rice. (Diary products are another problem, but EGGS. Let me slowly take another step to rid diary off my diet.) I do eat the occasional meat when dining out with my friends. Otherwise, I’ll order a seafood dish (overfishing is also a troubling matter, sigh).

Going meatless is not difficult when you have recipes that have punchy strong flavours. In this dish, the earthy sweetness of the beetroot just melds with the sharp musky anchovies. I’ve tried both types of anchovies – one pickled in olive oil and the other pickled in vinegar. The latter had a lighter sourness that didn’t assault your tastebuds. Topped with a spicy mustard sauce and freshly picked chives, just eating this dish was like a kick right in the mouth – a combustion of sweet, sour and spice. Try not to boil the eggs fully, so that they will retain a runny yolk – just be careful when peeling the shells off. Another good thing out of this was being able to use the leftovers (I’m a small eater) for lunch the next day. With rice, of course.

I might be one person against a conglomerate of corporate giants. Some may not agree, and some may think it’s a useless battle. Well, at least, I’m doing my part. And I don’t have to worry about that piece of meat in my next meal.

The recipe can be found here.

The Novice Cook: Apples, Pears and Bananas

At this rate, I’m supposed to be highly proficient around the kitchen and basic cooking methods should not faze me. But every single time, I surprise myself at my continued lack of skills and confidence. (In fact, I cooked myself dinner last night. And being alone, I decided on a poor man’s meal of eggs, soy sauce, leftover rice and beetroot. I managed to not cook the eggs properly.)

When Ned finds me rummaging through her sacred grounds, she would stand at the door and ask if I needed any supervision or guidance of sorts before she leaves the house. That’s how much of a dunce I am in the area of culinary arts. Each dish I have cooked was a battle fought – some with crushing defeat and some conquered with pride. Most times, I seek assistance from my parents who willingly help. They rather dirty their hands than me with the kitchen. And this time, Mom had to help me core the fruits because I’ve never done it before – using a knife felt a little daunting then.

Watching my mother skilfully remove the seeds from the fruits, it made me wonder why was there even fear in the first place. Was that what’s stopping people from entering the kitchen? As celebrity chefs show off their impressive chopping moves on television, we are slowly stepping away from actual cooking and relying on microwave meals. I do admit that watching my late mama whipping dinner up was awe-inspiring and yet, also intimidating. In my eyes, cooking was left for those who knew and understood it. With the lack of hands-on experience, cooking slowly became detached from my life. I don’t even know how to use a rice cooker.

That’s slowly changing though. Step by step, I’m learning the basics whether by watching others or plainly experimenting it on my own. I do prefer cooking alone – it pushes me to act on my feet using my own resources and not relying on others. Unfortunately, I had way too much help with this simple recipe from the cutting of the fruits to the toasting of the walnuts. Sure, I did them myself but they were executed under observation. It was like taking a Home Economics exam.

As I watched the fruits caramelise in the oven, peace and calmness settled in. The familiar therapeutic feeling I often get from cooking alone returned. Although my foray into cooking will be a never-ending challenge, but it was one I gladly took. After all, in return, I get to eat fantastic dishes such as this dessert (the baked bananas were sublime and the crunchy walnuts against the soft fruits was a great balance of textures). Nothing really beats cooking with your very own hands.

The recipe can be found here.

The Novice Cook: Squid, Potato and Chilli

I just had a couple of my wisdom teeth removed a few days back, which only meant a diet of gooey porridge and soup. The only joy I could partake in was the fact that I had five days off from work. This gave me the perfect opportunity to foray into the kitchen while everyone else was out of the house (except my Dad, he’s always home). The great thing about having the whole day free from work obligations meant I could have (A) a long relaxing brunch, (B) a leisurely grocery shopping trip and (C) short coffee break thereafter. And it’s always a joy to shop in a relatively empty market.

Although I was nursing a wounded mouth, it was in the midst of healing and I could slowly consume soft foods. I decided to be slightly more adventurous though – I figured squid should be tender enough. Or that all sense of wisdom was left at the dentist chair (we have a local saying that squids are ‘blur’, meaning dim and clueless. So, if someone calls you sotong, it’s an insult).

Why squid then? They just seemed odd, don’t they? A little like aliens of the sea world, with their stringy tentacles and bulging bug-eyed faces. They look slimy and slightly creepy as though they can murder you by wrapping multiple legs around you. Death By Sotong, that’s terrible. But that’s what intrigued me, because despite their unfortunate looks, they were a delight to taste.

My only problem was that I had no idea how to prepare squid. I knew I had to get rid of the transparent bone and make sure that none of the black ink is introduced into my dish. Thankfully I had help from my equally clueless father to cut the creature for me. I stood beside him as he explained the steps in a very convincing manner – dads are endearing this way. Well, luckily for both of us, he succeeded in cleaning the squid and I had something to cook with.

The recipe called for the squid to be covered with flour, which gave a very odd texture to the seafood when done. I’m not sure if it was supposed to create a crispy layer since it was baked and not fried. There wasn’t much a batter per se, so what resulted was a mushy-type texture I wasn’t crazy about. Paired with chilli (which Dad cut, because he was worried that I’d get them in my eyes) and potatoes, the dish had a piquant spicy kick and a refreshing citrusy taste from the lemon juice. I wouldn’t mind cooking this dish again, but without the flour and the potatoes. Maybe with a generous helping of blended chilli sauce and lime…. like sambal sotong

When he saw the final dish, Dad laughed and shook his head. At that moment, I transformed into a four-year-old girl playing chef in her toy kitchen.

The recipe can be found here.

The Novice Cook: Plum Crumble with Ice Cream

Crumbles are the ultimate comfort food. Soft baked fruits tender in its honey juices with a crunchy topping, usually made with oats or granola. They are easy to prepare and relatively convenient to consume. However, unlike the typical crumble, this recipe uses an ‘independent’ crumble where its prepared separately from the fruit, but equally as scrumptious.

I found the whole process of getting one’s fingers dirty with cold butter and flour amazingly therapeutic. The more I cook, the more I find it fascinating. It’s odd how food break down with heat and becomes something else entirely. It’s quite like alchemy, in this case, the gold meant delicious food in your tummy later on. And using your hands only makes the event very personal, it’s putting your handprint (literally) into your food and saying, “this is my gift to you”. I say that to my tummy.

The crumble was baked separately from the fruits. The key was to keep the crumble as loose as possible, hence turning and tossing with a fork (in which case, hands were not allowed unless one was keen to be burnt) whenever possible. Because the crumble remained on its own while baking, this only meant more time was needed to prepare this dish than a typical crumble. But what I love about an ‘independent’ crumble was that you could decide on how much of the crunchy oats you’d like on your fruits after. It’s such an unfussy way of enjoying the dessert.

Due to the lack of time, I decided to stew the plums instead of baking them. By adding a tiny amount of water, some sugar and star anise (I had quite a bit which overpowered the fruits a little), a deep red-purple infused into the fruit stew to become glorious plum syrup. In about 20 minutes, the plums were soft but kept their structure. Plate them up, sprinkle the crumble generously and scoop a dollop of the best vanilla (or clotted cream) ice cream, and give your tummy a lovely present.

Recipe can be found in Hugh’s Three Good Things.

The Novice Cook: Chicken with Tomatoes and Tarragon

You know how dependant one is on cookbooks when you look at the state of the cover jacket. Hugh’s lovely face is now spotted with oil stains and other undistinguished sauces. The once pristine pages were tampered with soiled fingerprints and leftover flour have found home deep within the rim. But I’d like to think that Hugh would be proud of me ruining his book because that only meant I’ve been using it! (I’ve managed to wipe off the stains off his face for now.)

In all my attempts in The Novice Cook, I’ve yet to do a proper main course and much less, meat. It’s fascinating to learn about the different animal breeds, meat cuts, and cooking techniques. Unlike seafood, I’ve always found meat less daunting and slightly romantic. Maybe because these gentle beasts live on the same land that we do which makes our relationship a tad more closer. Man raises the animal, and the animal gives back to Man with meat or by kind.

I’m not trying to romanticise the reality of death and brutal farming methods. Battery chicken farms are not uncommon in the modern world where the demand for cheap poultry is high. These poor birds are kept in tight overcrowding barns covered in their own droppings, and spend their days being overfed with chemically-‘enhanced’ feed without seeing the outside world. This results in unhealthy short-lived chickens that appear on our tables. And you know what they say about “paying what you get”.

Sadly, organic or free-range chicken can only be found in speciality stores at an exuberant price (about $40!) and are mostly frozen. And yes, kampung does not mean it’s free-range. Isn’t it odd for a country who loves its poultry to not encourage sustainable and humanely-farmed meat? On another note, does anyone know if rearing one’s own chickens is illegal? With the avian bird flu, I suspect stringent regulations are in place to prevent the spread of diseases. For now, Ned and I will just have to keep dreaming of our little brood of chickens.

Back to the recipe: poulet à l’estragon is a classic French dish that features the chicken laced with a creamy tarragon sauce. Tarragon is one of the four herbs that makes up fines herbes and is often used in French cooking (the famous Béarnaise sauce is mainly flavoured with it). The herb has a very distinct grassy note of anise and one leave is enough to give a weighty liquorice-y punch into any dish – be it fish or fowl.

Tasting it for the first time, we love the complexity of flavours tarragon offered. It is odd how we have never used this herb more often. (Any French tarragon leaves around for us to propagate?) Cream or butter is usually paired up with it to balm the bitterness. In Hugh’s version, cream is plainly absent but to avoid the overwhelming pungency, the herb is only added at the very end to give a gentle perfume. It stood very well on its own against the chicken and the sweet-sour tang of the tomatoes.

A round of applause should be given to me for my very first stab at actual cooking. Yes, Ned had to supervise me again or I’d undercook the bird. Memories of hot oil bursting from the pan onto my skin and the long roasting hours were eased away by a crispy golden-brown skin of a tender chicken thigh with juicy tomatoes and aromatic tarragon leaves. And I foresee more stains on Hugh’s face soon.

Recipe can be found in Hugh’s Three Good Things.

The Novice Cook: Tomatoes, Eggs, Bread and Mozzarella

They say cooking for your family and friends is a form of love and appreciation. For me, cooking is almost like therapy, but it truly becomes enjoyment when I am alone in the kitchen. Why? When one has parents like mine, there is a limit on how much one can take on senseless questions: “are you sure you can handle it”, “do you need help”, or “should I call Ned to come over”.

Yes, the Novice Cook is looking terribly vulnerable, and holding a knife can be awfully dangerous when pissed. Taking on my promise that I would return to the kitchen, I decided breakfast would be the best time to truly immerse myself into the experience. Waking up at 7am on a weekend morning meant that everyone else was still in bed, and all I can hear were the birds and the droning sounds of tomatoes being chopped up.

I decided to roast a simple dish of lightly seasoned tomatoes, eggs, mozzarella and bread in the oven. Hardly rocket science. The recipe might not be complicated but it requires plenty of waiting. If I had known, I would have grilled some sausages on the side. All I did was stare at the oven and wishing that I was back in bed.

The tricky part was the eggs. I must have mentioned it before but I’ve never ever fried an egg my entire life. Poached, yes. Baking them was an easy way out. I did manage to break a few yolks because of sleep depravation. However, the end result were wobbly eggs set against pure whites. I did increase the time because they didn’t cook enough as specified. Watching the oven has its good points.

By the time the dish was ready, no one was awake. So lucky me, I had first dips. It actually reminded me of the Shakshuka that Ned made some time back. The tangy sweetness of the tomatoes, the crisp crust of the bread, stringy buttery mozzarella and freshness of the eggs. With minimal seasoning, it’s a wonder how this dish managed to bring so much to the plate.

We had second breakfast afterwards though. I should really have cooked those sausages.

The recipe is from Hugh’s Three Good Things.

The Novice Cook: White Chocolate Panna Cotta with Raspberry Sauce and Homemade Shortbread Biscuits

Sometimes images of half-eaten food convey a stronger story than the clean unsullied ones. I particularly love how it can capture a sense of pleasure and a little lust as though the photographer couldn’t wait to eat it before shooting. Or maybe that’s just me.

The last dessert I made was a fairly successful one despite attempting it without any aid. This time, I’m not even sure if I could categorise this under The Novice Cook because I had so much assistance from Ned. The words I utter in the kitchen will stay secret as they are too embarrassing to be known to the world. Just picture this: flying batter, stubborn puddings, missing ramekins, gelatin leave uncertainty and plenty of exasperation. I’m glad to say I survived and that I even managed to get a compliment from my little sister Ned: “I’m so proud of you, Jie, you made shortbread.” Yes, for a girl who still doesn’t know how to cook rice, that’s grand.

The original recipe from Hugh did not have raspberry sauce but I thought it would make a lovely addition to the dish. And that worked very well indeed, especially against the crunchiness of the shortbread and creaminess of the panna cotta. I must stress that good quality white chocolate is highly essential to this dish or the pudding will be a let down. Also, Hugh did not specify the amount of gelatin leaves needed as different brands offer different leaf sizes. So keep the packaging so that you’d have the information readily.

For the shortbread, instead of crumbling them into little pieces, they were cut into smooth circles for very superficial reasons. The thing about recipe books is that they don’t make it dummy-proof for noobs like me. Instead of whisking the butter before adding the sugar, I mixed everything in together and started the electric whisker. Now, that explains the the story of the flying batter. Well, and that I had simply no common sense that a bigger bowl was more suitable for the job.

After the numerous casualties, the panna cotta turned out fine after some prodding. The smell of freshly baked shortbread was intoxicating. I enjoyed dipping the leftover biscuits into the bright red sauce for a light snack. Raspberry, creamy white chocolate and buttery shortbread biscuits – this is like the holy trinity of desserts.

This is my little tribute to our upcoming trip to the UK with the reds, whites and blues of the Union Jack. I have about eight hours and then the plane takes off to the city of fandom. We are huge Doctor Who fans, if you haven’t noticed already. Till then…

The recipe is from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Three Good Things.

The Novice Cook: Asparagus, Ham and Poached Egg on Toast

Last of our asparagus goodness was to celebrate Mother’s Day. Being women ourselves, it isn’t difficult to imagine what motherhood will be like in the future. We may not be mothers ourselves now but to see our own Mom work tirelessly for close to 30 years of her life is admirable and worthy of respect. It may be the simple things that we take for granted like putting dinner on the table everyday, doing the laundry or even just being there to listen to our whining. Sometimes, we rebel and say things we wished we hadn’t said. But deep down inside, Mom knows that she is always our best friend and cuddly bear for hugs.

We are never one to celebrate this overly commercialised festivity, but to save Mom from any cooking, what better way to say thank you with a breakfast full of goodness. And it was a great opportunity to finish up all the asparagus we bought over the weekend. Although this was part of my Novice Cook project, I had a little help from Ned with the poached eggs. You see, I have yet to fry an egg, much less a poached one.

Hugh’s recipe originally had Parma ham, which was available but really just too expensive. Plus, we weren’t keen on vacuum packed ham from the supermarkets.  One can use raw, cured Proscuitto ham by wrapping the soft meat around each asparagus spear while the vegetable is still hot. This allows the fat in the meat to soften and release its aroma. We wanted to minimise cooking, so the Parma ham was replaced with regular apple-flavoured gammon ham.

Eggs and asparagus are natural partners, especially when there is yolk present to dip the spears in. Hugh’s recipe did not require malt vinegar and I insisted on following it. But we figured the addition of malt vinegar did help with the consistency of the poached eggs, which you can refer to our previous eggy recipe here. The key to perfectly done poached eggs are to use very very fresh eggs, preferably free-range. And a little confidence. If you’d like to ‘glam’ this dish up a little, you can add in some homemade hollandaise sauce (which you can find here).

This was just a small token in appreciation to mom, but as all moms do, it’s their kids’ happiness that matter to them. That’s why moms are just made of awesome.

This recipe is from Hugh’s Three Good Things.

The Novice Cook: Asparagus, Potatoes and Halloumi Cheese

While Ned stirred away her asparagus soup, I was adding to the kitchen chaos by preparing my own take on the asparagus. Having two chefs in one tiny kitchen can get a little crazy, especially when there was only one stove to use. Luckily, all I needed was our trusty oven to stir up this simple dish.

What’s so interesting is how these three different ingredients can come together so perfectly well. Both the asparagus and the potato share an earthy, nutty flavour; it was no wonder why they make fantastic partners. The recipe called for new potatoes, but I didn’t have those so I had to make do with regular ones. Most pair asparagus with hard cheeses like Parmesan, but Halloumi cheese was used here. I’ve never eaten Halloumi cheese before – it is a semi-hard cheese originating from Cyprus and can cook very well in high heat. The mild saltiness of the halloumi brought a lovely contrast and enhanced the sweet, sulfurous flavour of the asparagus.

I was pretty much out of Ned’s hair after 10 to 15 minutes into preparation as there was only cutting, baking and tossing involved. The only ‘special’ ingredient I had to get was the halloumi, which could probably be easily replaced with Parmesan. It can make for a wonderful tea time snack. Just pop the items in the oven, make yourself a cup of tea and when it’s ready, settle yourself in a comfy couch and a good read. I didn’t make a lot of this, but I hope I had… it was gobbled up almost too quickly. Now I need more halloumi.

Recipe can be found here.

The Novice Cook: Rhubarb and Ginger Fool with Ginger Biscuit Crumble

I have a confession to make: I cannot live without having at least one dessert each day. Best meals are when dessert is served after dessert (some restaurants do that) or when a platter of beautiful sugary items sit on on a buffet display. With N in charge of all the sweets at home, my taste buds are blessed with countless confections. (Bad luck to my diabetic genes. And tummy.)

For the past Novice Cook entries, the dishes have all been of a savoury nature. Cooking might be daunting, but stepping into dolce territory was nerve wrecking. I felt almost like Matsumoto Jun when he was tasked to prepare the desserts for kitchen service in Bambino – intrusive and foreign. Having no experience and even lesser interaction with rhubarb, it already sounds like a recipe for disaster.

After trimming and washing the rosy pink stems, I peeled them not knowing if that was necessary. (Anyone can tell me if this was needed?) They were then chopped into pieces and popped into a saucepan with sugar. Because rhubarb is filled with so much moisture, sometimes water is not needed. Their own juices absorb the melted sugar, creating a beautiful mass of the pinkest blush. I gushed ‘きれい’ as the stems slowly released the sticky liquid. Then I covered the saucepan. Probably a bad decision because two seconds later, the pieces disintegrated into stringy pulp. Still very pretty though.

Whipping up the yoghurt and cream into a mixture was probably the most labourious task in the whole recipe. I concluded that N must have superbly toned arms after all the baking, because my arms could barely hold the mixer for barely a minute. The mixture was whipped till soft peaks were formed, or I thought they looked like peaks. Had my fair share of watching cooking shows to identify what they are. The rhubarb was added in later and topped with crunchy ginger biscuits, which gave the fool some bite.

Reflections on my first dessert? It’s definitely a lot more to do then it looked on paper, but as always, the end result always make all the work worthy. N thought the taste was good, but if the rhubarb had not broken down, the dessert would have more texture. Well, not bad then, for a noob like me.

Recipe can be found in Hugh’s Fearnley Whittingstall’s Three Good Things.

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